A Famous Blues / Go Find Your Father by Harmony Holiday

Reviewed By

Go Find Your Father

There is poetics to water, in water, with water, because water. Likely you already know this. Look at a river, read a poem about a river, feel the river while the river’s current guides the poem, impels the poem, insists the poem. And this would be one version of the poetics to water that appears in Harmony Holiday’s dual book, A Famous Blues / Go Find Your Father. But what a pedestrian description that would be for this book. Because there will always be poems that try to estimate a river. Who doesn’t want a poem of river like a river flowing? I like Holiday’s book too much to leave my description of her poetics at “river” or “water.” It’s a start. It’s a reasonable opening. I would call attention to the poetics arising when a bucket of water is poured clean from the bucket. That smooth, sinewy line. That feeling that continuous is inside you, inside the water, always being water while it pours onto the ground, or into another bucket, or into a river if you want it to. Who cares where the water is pouring, when you have this glandular muscularity that every moment is reflecting in water.

And it’s not only the force and sustained note in Holiday’s poems that would give them this poetics of water. It’s how these poems cohere via subject, via blues as underlying impulse for poetry, via near homonym that groups thoughts, via a father. An overwhelming presence of father. On one side, Harmony Holiday’s A Famous Blues / Go Find Your Father  is an ars poetica for her first book, Negro League Baseball. Where Negro League leaves more the impression of “father” on a reader, seeing how an artist with a father who was himself an artist will feel her father present in her work. Now move to Go Find Your Father to understand what father and how father and whether father and if father and when father. I want to keep going father. Because each of the epistles Holiday writes to her dead father just feels like continuing, and I need to continuing, and the epistles even speculating that she will be continuing to write these letters to her father even when this project is through. The voice is just like you’d imagine the writer who wrote Negro League Baseball would write to someone she cared so deeply for.

Dear Dad,

The white horse anchored and rose with such likelihood each go-around on the carousel and I felt like a queen up there alone between whites and lights, a little amber music. How I kept looking for your Stetson towering above all those mediocre heads and herds at the carnivals. Are we cannibals, are we a clan of heroes, or villains, or both? It’s indecipherable. Excellent is a threat here but we go ahead with it. Both sides now.

The poem feels like access, as in access to the daughter’s emotions and needs, with the access being immediate and entire and not mine and hers only and something I want and I get. It feels like that access is borne out of the simple necessity to understand how a relationship with a parent is so essential to how we realize we can be who we are despite and because of our parents. Then add to Holiday’s situation that her father is a cultural figure. Then add to Holiday’s situation that her father is a troubled figure, and whatever complication you might sense in the language of these poems turns out to be exactly what you are yearning for. It’s a complication to necessarily trouble these poems’ emotional availability.

This is why, if I might be so bold as to guide you, future Holiday reader, into your experience of this dual book, I would recommend you start with Go Find Your Father, and then move to A Famous Blues. Not just because Go Find Your Father gives context (i.e. who is this Jimmie Holiday in relation to the speaker, how does she feel about him, how does she feel about the music and the music industry’s position towards him). But because the access to the daughter’s voice is so absolute and entire in Go Find Your Father that any ambiguity in A Famous Blues is understood as necessary and a poetically inevitable sorting through of the speaker’s relationship with her father. Put another way, difficulty offers its own type of access. Compare the previous quotation addressed to her father to the style of A Famous Blues‘ “The Black Entertainer’s Say My Name Blues”:

You know how when the sun is out ’til really late one day every year and he renames your soul to pace while you play Apollo shoulders with your first born self and everyone feels like a nearness/winner/narcissist/ridiculous/charmed-I’m-sure-chanting miss thing chasing her shadow beneath that yellow umbrella where the slow word for mirror rears itself to roar and before you can dwell on it or rest assured or aurora that staggered velocity, his love of your, your lust for the father, you’re busy combating it all not so fast with your fat tongue all over my name like a claw or a bad actor as I shine on the grass in your mouth and you get how–Love is a dangerous necessity. Is this man imitating a movie star?

There is still clear sentiment toward the father, but notice it has been rearranged into a new sensibility that indulgently shifts and realigns its register so that an affection for the father (“he renames your soul” or “his love for you, your lust for the father”) could simultaneously be read as father’s love as well as reverence to Apollo, the sun God, and perhaps, in the Apollo register, it is love for the sun alone, and that sensuality of a long evening in summer when it feels like the sun will never end. Perhaps this gives us some idea of what it feels like to be loved without committing to what the source of that love is.

I like to consider Holiday’s book as an inverse to Jenny Bouilly’s The Body, where Bouilly is absence with the hint of a broader substance playing out in that absence, and Holiday is substance playing out and on and in and alongside and over but not done over until maybe the jazz note would dictate, go ahead do it over. Then Holiday doesn’t necessarily do it over, but just plays it a little bit longer before she drops all that substance on top of the other substance. Maybe I’ve always wanted to envision the kind of text that would be present in The Body, and Holiday’s style and poetics feels like that overflow that would necessitate Bouilly’s footnotes. And in Holiday’s dual book, it feels as though the body of circumstance and emotional complexity is already footnoted, whether it’s through the appropriated texts or her direct reference to black artists. The book feels as though it overflows, and so my impression of water. Which always has felt like jazz in all those organics that keeps moving the jazz around. And that’s Holiday. That was Holiday in Negro League Baseball, but that was jazz lyric poetry. I would say this is jazz lyric voice making sentences you fear will stop, you don’t want to hear stop, or even finish a sentence, because then the sentence is ending.

Unfortunately, I have focused almost solely on Holiday’s style in this review. But it’s because I am sad to be unhearing her words when I’m away from them. The voice in A Famous Blues / Go Find Your Father is so absolute and addicting and completing (Holiday, you complete me!) and enduring. And yet there is a specific politics underlying the poems in this book regarding the “work made for hire” clause in many recording contracts. The poems in A Famous Blues feel like direct confrontations with this fact, but that’s mainly from interspersed texts telling the story of Holiday’s father, Jimmie Holiday. This half of the book spells out the concept of inheritance in concrete and explicit terms. Literally, Holiday has been in dispute for royalties she and her mother should be earning form her father’s song writing. And so the concept of father as artist present in Harmony Holiday’s artistic life takes on a concrete character. It’s a point which A Famous Blues takes further when it speaks to influence with a listing of artists in “Lament for the Brilliance of Wolves.” And I would say it’s this conceptual interlock surrounding the idea of inheritance that allows for so much centripetal motion in the poems. They hurl themselves outward in syntax and content and sentiment and everything, please. Yet they still hold together. Similar to Negro League Baseball, but different, in the absolutely explicit understanding of what lies at the complex center of this dual book.


Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →